AUSTIN, Texas — The U.S. capital of video game creation isn't in Redmond, Washington, where Microsoft and Nintendo of America are headquartered. Nor is it in San Francisco or another obvious choice, Los Angeles.
It's right here.
Austin is the home base of most massively multiplayer game development in the U.S. and host city to an eccentric cast of game makers that includes the most critically acclaimed studio outside Japan. Also home to Dell, the University of Texas at Austin and the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference, the city is as creatively vibrant as it is proficient at high-tech, making it a hotbed of game development for more than two decades. For Gamer's Week 2.0, MTV News spent a week in Austin to soak in the game culture. Here are five things we learned as we visited My Gaming Block Austin (and check back Tuesday for five more):
Making games in Austin can turn you into a real-life Indiana Jones.
A key stop on the tour is NCsoft, where lead game designer Richard Garriott now plies his trade (see "Video Game Hall Of Fame Inducts 'Satanic Perverter' "). Garriott is the co-founder of Origin Systems, the developer most top game developers in Austin once worked for. The so-called godfather of gaming in Austin, he started making games while he was in high school, when a game he spent six weeks making after class quickly netted him $150,000, more than doubling his astronaut father's salary. With his brother Robert, father and others, he started Origin Systems and moved from Dallas to Austin in the early '80s. Garriott designed "Ultima Online," the first widely successful massively multiplayer online game.
Success brought a bunch of things. Fame among gamers. Money. And even the occasional urge to make music. "We would all go into the recording studio ... and make our own little rap tunes," he said. He shared some verses: "I'm a programmer/ Code so well I can't bear it/ I instantiate/ Instruct/ And virtually inherit." None of that makes Garriott seem like something out of an Indy Jones movie. No, that would be his house, the one lined with hidden doorknobs, secret passages and a collection of stuff that includes meteorites he found in Antarctica, gold coins he retrieved from a chest of a sunken ship, a championship boxing belt, pre-publication editions of the "Lord of the Rings" books, a skeleton in a 19th century coffin, a mummified Egyptian bird he bought off eBay, an authentic vampire-hunting kit and a model of a lunar lander that he bought from the Soviets. Now he's working on a new MMO, "Tabula Rasa," and a new tricked-out house to showcase even more treasures.
You can't take an Austin gamer's lunch money.
Shane Kukiattikoon is a couple of years out of college and a couple of years from dangling a $1,000 bill in front of people he knew could never take it. He says he would pay the grand to any gamer who could beat him 10 straight times in the battle mode of "Mario Kart" for Super Nintendo. He used to travel through Texas offering challenges. No one got his grand. He came out of retirement at Austin gaming center Tek Republik to take a challenge from MTV News' Sway Calloway. The contest was one-sided. How did Sway rate? "Very bottom," Kukiattikoon deadpanned. Nearby, another Austin gamer, Mike Kolodzy, described a recent series of matches his local first-person-shooter clan had against a New York group: "We basically fed them their own tonsils." These Austin players don't play around.
Fire-house poles in the office would be going too far.
Opened this year, the new Austin branch for "Mortal Kombat" maker Midway Games packs an unusual interior: a game design studio crafted by game designers. Harvey Smith, one of the visionaries who sat down for MTV News' Game Makers Roundtable (read "Gaming Masterminds Put Bloody Monsters Into Perspective At Roundtable" or watch the action here.), is the head creative force for the company's top-secret projects. Smith pointed out some office features: whiteboards in the hallways so people can pick up a marker and sketch a quick brainstorm; a newly christened room for gamers to test multiplayer titles; and about 30 Razor scooters that keep the halls alive, with game creators dashing to their appointed rounds. "Harvey actually did want a golf cart for a while, just to drive around the office," said Midway's Austin studio chief, Denise Fulton. Someone had floated the idea of second-floor meeting rooms and fire-house poles for leaving them, but those ideas were nixed.
The sound of evil monsters is the sound of pigs squealing.
The audio chief at Midway Austin is local veteran Marc Schaefgen, who did sound design for some of the city's most famous franchises: "Ultima," "Turok" and "Wing Commander." He oversees a wing of the studio that's walled off, to keep it quiet, and decked with pictures of rock legends like Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia. At his mixing board, where he's able to cue sounds of monsters screeching, he played a sample of a creature from Harvey Smith's secret game. On his computer screen an insectoid alien with jowls growled. Then Shaefgen wound himself up and revealed the origin of the recorded sound: his own voice. He played back the recorded version, changing pitch and register. Then he mixed in an animal noise to curdling effect. "You can't have a creature growl without a pig squeal," he said. A secret was revealed.
Rooster Teeth studios is at the far end of a building. Not that end. The other end.
On the second floor of an unassuming building just outside Austin in Buda, Texas, there's a railroad apartment where "Halo" episodes are being made. Several times a week Burnie Burns and the team at Rooster Teeth Productions fill the back room, where they jump on the Xbox 360 with controllers in hand, run around in the multiplayer areas of "Halo" and record a video feed of their characters' actions. They tape dialogue in a tiny closet, match it to the video and wind up with new episodes of their popular "Halo" machinima series "Red Vs. Blue" that, according to Burns, are downloaded 850,000 times a week (see "Machinima Pros Make A Living Playing 'Halo' — With Their Feet"). There's just one thing: Visitors who get directions to their second-floor abode are advised to go to the apartment above the convenience store. If you go to the other end, you wind up walking into a room filled with women cooking breakfast, women who quickly shriek and, oddly, cover their fully clothed bodies with their arms. MTV News learned the hard way.
Check back Tuesday for the second part of our My Gaming Block Austin series.
For more coverage from Gamer's Week 2.0, go to games.mtv.com.